Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Bangers n' Mash 33: The 2013 Phantom Awards

It's not easy being both a procrastinator and a perfectionist. That's the easy answer why it takes nearly a month to get an episode of the podcast out. As the first month of the year comes to a close, Mr. Bangers and Mr. Mash look back on 2013, discussing the best sci-fi, horror, and fantasy films. Yep, it's another edition of the Phantom Awards. The previous year's Phantom Awards is, thus far, our least popular episode. Oh well. It doesn't bother me. Long time blog readers are probably aware of my love of award season glitz. Anyway, here it is.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Director Report Card: Quentin Tarantino (2012)

9. Django Unchained

There’s a lot to discuss about “Django Unchained.” The film manages to be several very different things. To Tarantino’s credit, it’s exactly what he said it was going to be: A movie that handles racism and slavery, not as a serious “issues” film, but instead as an exploitation movie. On paper, that sounds simple enough. It sounds a lot like “Inglourious Basterds,” truthfully. The big difference lies in the fact that Nazism is a mostly dead philosophy while racism is still a very real problem people grapple with on a daily basis. Despite what idiots like to tell you, the US is still licking the wounds slavery left on the country’s collective psyche. Despite its filmmaker’s intentions, “Django Unchained” still comes off as awfully heavy at times. Did I mention it’s also one of the best things Tarantino has done?

Considering the director’s obvious love of the western, it’s sort of surprising this is the first proper whack QT has taken at it. (“Kill Bill Vol. 2” being an improper whack.) Deconstructions are popular when it comes to “low” genres like westerns, horror, or superheroes. Tarantino doesn’t trade in deconstructions. His work wagers less in “This is what would really happen,” and more in “Wouldn’t it be cool if this happened?” He plays with genres, mashes together divergent influences without doesn’t pick apart. Following this template, “Django Unchained” starts by dropping a blaxploitation hero into a spaghetti western story.

The movie blatantly trades in the styles and conventions of the spaghetti western. Early in the movie, the director doubles down on dramatic crash-pans and side-swipes before thankfully dialing that back for the reminder of the film. You’re probably so use to seeing morally ambiguous heroes in Tarantino’s films that you might not even notice its use here is probably a deliberate reference. The surreal elements and religious satire so prominent in those classic films, especially in the wake of the original “Django,” gets a few passing reference. This is most notable in a one-off moment of M.C. Gainey's slave overseer marching around with Bible pages stitched to his shirt, a delightfully off-beat element. The genre’s trademark homoerotic undertones and torture sequences are combined into one of the more blunt would-be castration scenes in recent memory. Characters often lounge around dusty rock formations, a setting that could just as much be in Texas as Spain. The gun training montage is actually less out of Italian western and more of a throwback to classic American westerns, since Sabata and Sartana were the greatest marksmen in the world to begin with. The entire winter sequence seems to owe quite a bit to “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” at least on a visual level. The “lone hero rides into a troubled town” archetype is re-imagined in the last act, with the town substituted with a massive plantation. The writer even slips in many references to classic German folklore, just for variety.

Not to mention the glorious, operatic bloodshed. Spaghetti westerns, and the original “Django” in particular, were noted for splashing a whole lot of red into the traditional browns and oranges of the western. “Django Unchained” pushes that even further over the top. Gunshots results in giant clouds of red spraying everywhere. Huge ribbons of bright red gore dance through the air, exploding out of every exposed vein. An entire room is quite literally painted red with blood. The level of cartoonish violence in “Kill Bill” are applied to bullets and holsters gun-play. It’s awesome. A massive gunfight that explodes at the end of the second act is nothing short of glorious.

I’m not intentionally avoiding discussing the movie’s racial content. Many term papers will be written about this, no doubt. The crimes of slavery and racism are portrayed with blunt, vicious honesty. Never before has the slash of a whip been so visceral. The festering, bloody wounds of prolonged shackle wearing are fully seen. A gladiator fight between slaves in a swanky club lacks all the stylized action of the gunfights, instead playing as an intentionally cruel, vicious brawl. In a move sure to infuriate Spike Lee, “nigger” is used constantly and every time it stinks of dripping, awful hatred. No moment is more sickening then when a runaway slave is torn apart by a pack of attack dogs. Any one who has accused Tarantino of fetishizing violence on film should probably watch that moment on repeat. His heroes righteous revenge might be comic book-y in their joyous bloodshed but he takes no satisfaction in this moment of violence. The cruelties of slavery are fully illustrated. It’s horrifyingly obvious that the characters in this film and, sadly, in history, saw other human beings as nothing but objects.

But what is the writer/director’s intention here? The film’s villains inflict horrible things on Kerry Washington and other victims, everything from ‘hot boxes’ to terrifying looking iron mask. I’m not sure if Tarantino is holding up the horrors of history to our modern eyes, begging us not to forget, or if he's establishing that the bad guys are really bad guys. These historical acts of cruelty might just be in service of a traditional, pulpy genre exercise. While never quite disrespectful, the script is undeniably sarcastic at times. In a hilarious scene, the funniest moment in the film, a group of raiding racists, would-be Klansman, bitch about the eye-holes cut into their white bags. The movie’s many, extremely funny moments, like a wobbling giant tooth on a spring, are bound to be overlooked. Is Tarantino playing with these historical cruelties just to make audiences uncomfortable? Or, perhaps, the friendship formed between Django and King Schultz is meant to represent the things that bring us together, not force us apart. Is the not-as-exaggerated-as-you'd think historical content making a wider statement? Or does the director just want us to know that slavery was, you know, bad?

Never the less, the effect is cathartic. Action movies are rarely allowed to have any sort of historical context these days. The most recent example I can think of is “Iron Man,” where a superhero flies over, lands right down in a Middle Eastern battleground, and blows up a group of terrorists single-handedly. The Basterds Swiss-cheesed Hitler. Django guns down hordes of evil racists and slavers. “Wish fulfillment” or “revenge fantasy” seem inappropriate, but “escapism” seems to fit. We wish it could be that way. That a single person could turn the tide of history, delivering swift, tried-and-true justice against the greatest evils of the world, past and present. This is what action movies were invented for, exorcising our cultural pains in big, broad strokes.

Enough about the complicated themes of the movie. Let’s talk mechanics. Our writer/director seems to be making up for the dialogue/action ratio leaning heavily towards dialogue in his last two movies. “Django Unchained” is fantastically paced. While you’ve got long dialogue scenes, of course, it never drags. Frequently, it builds tension, leading up to explosive violence. It’s a long movie but never feels it, running wildly from action scene to action scene. As in his best movies, the dialogue is action. It’s also one of the filmmaker’s most visually arresting films, as the rich colors of the Antebellum South are put forth right in front of us. He tinkers around with the visual language of cinema quite a bit. Flashbacks are shown in over-saturated, scratched-up segments, recalling “Grindhouse.” Instead of just mimicking the aesthetics of the older films, Tarantino actually uses his bag of tricks to further the movie’s tones and emotions.

Some have criticized the use of titles in the middle of the movie, coming at the end of a montage sequence. However, I kind of have to applaud that move. If the writer had included everything that happened during that time period, the run-time of his already long movie would have bloated to something like six, seven hours. Some times you just need to cut to the chase as a writer and trust that you’re audience understands this. My favorite stylistic choice is a sudden fade to black, one that lingers a little longer then usual. The audience is left wondering if the movie is actually over for a minute. It serves the same purpose as the “Missing Reel” gag in “Grindhouse,” of skipping the end-of-the-second act/transition towards the climax fat, but is a more disciplined, effective use. Overall, “Django Unchained” shows Tarantino evolving as a filmmaker, not just a stylist.

Of course, the chosen soundtrack is impeccable. Plenty of songs are taken from classic westerns, spaghetti and otherwise, further showing the originators of the movie’s DNA while indulging Quentin's “Spot the reference!” fetish. These choices, most especially the themes from “They Call Him Trinity” and "His Name was King," are deployed at exactly the right moments. The anachronistic use of modern pop music shows up again, the fury of a 2Pac rap powering a vicious shoot out. The movie also makes the best use of a Jim Croce song ever, as “I’ve Got a Name” is repurposed as an anthem of slavery freedom. A former slave, a man treated as an object, has a true name for the first time, has his own life for the first. Uncharacteristically for Tarantino, original songs are used. "Ancora Qui," composed by Ennio Morricone and sang by Elisa Toffoli, is a haunting Italian elegy. John Legend's "Who Did That To You" is expertly used during a key moment, providing a big musical exclamation mark on the end of the second act. Both of these are excellent and, unless you know what they are going in, you’d probably assume they aren’t original compositions.

Christoph Waltz is good goddamn actor, isn’t he? His effortless charm, used so brilliantly as Hans Landa, is played straight here. Several times, he manages to defuse tense moments simply by being smarter then any one else in the room. He talks his way out of deep shit in hilariously verbose blocks of dialogue. The dumb-founded response of the crowds is always funny. Once again, Waltz proves no actor has been better suited to Tarantino's writing then him. His Oscar win for the part was unexpected but truly deserved.

There was a lot of hype surrounding Leonardo DiCapro’s turn as the film’s villain, the foppish, despicable Calvin Candie. He doesn’t give a bad performance, that’s for sure. But I can’t help but be a little disappointed. Perhaps expecting another iconic character like Hans Landa was too much. There are only two moments were DiCaprio gets to show off his strength for villainous performances. The first involves the conversation with the runaway slave, right before the escapee’s brutal execution. DiCaprio’s delivery underline one of the harshest, most disgusting truths about slavery: That people treated other people like property. DiCaprio’s passive-aggressive, relaxed delivery illustrates that perfectly. The second is the actor’s big, show-off moment, the Oscar clip if he had gotten nominated. It’s an impassioned, yelling tirade about servitude that ends with screamed threats of hammer-related violence. Leo’s intensity was so real that, when his hand started bleeding during a take, he didn’t even notice it. The scene plays off the same intensity Scorsese has used so well in films like “The Departed” and “Shutter Island.”

That I was a bit underwhelmed by Calvin Candie probably plays into the fact that he’s not the real, primary villain of the film. He’s a very bad man, to understate it, but he’s not actually the one in control. That duty falls to Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen, the head house slave, a man who subtly manipulates those around. Jackson’s initial appearance has him playing the role of a mushed-mouthed, folksy Uncle Tom, with all the “motherfuckers” and “niggas” you expect from Jackson. Slowly, it’s revealed that Stephen notices subtle clues that his master doesn’t. In an incredible moment, Stephen has a one-on-one with Candie, where his façade falls away, and the cold, calculating, observing mind beneath shines through. In a career where Jackson phones it in so often, simply playing up his typical persona, it’s nice to see that the guy actually can act. The casual cruelty in Stephen’s lines and Jackson’s delivery makes him the biggest monster in the movie. You can definitely write a lot, and I expect people will, about internalized racism when it comes to this character.

Among these pedigree performances, Jaime Foxx’s lead role pales slightly. Foxx’s Django isn’t a showy display of acterly skills. Instead, it’s an example of a good actor playing the role to the fullest. Foxx imbues the strong, silent spaghetti western hero type with a fury and passion not typical of the genre. As you’d expect, the supporting cast is filled out with cute cameos and call-backs, among them Michael Parks, Tom Savini, Russ Tamblyn and Amber Tamblyn, and a cameo from the director himself, where Quentin sports maybe the worst Australian accent ever put to film. He, at least, has the good sense to give himself the best death scene in the movie. The favorite has to be a bit part from Franco Nero, the man who originated the title character. He shares a knowing nod with Foxx, symbolically passing the torch from one generation to the next, before exiting the film in the exact same hat and duster he wore in the original “Django.”

“Django Unchained” is, at it's best, a perfect balancing act of tone. While most filmmakers sneak social commentary into their genre films, Tarantino instead builds an exciting, invigorating genre pastiche around hot-button social issues, organically weaving the two together in the process. Few other filmmakers could have pulled it off. The horrible reality of slavery is acknowledged before the film blows through it with a bloody bullet. Ah, maybe that's the message? That things change, for the better? For all our problems, America at least figured out that slavery was wrong and corrected it. Look at that, we've come full circle, back to "Pulp Fiction's" theme of change and redemption. It's too soon to tell if "Django Unchained" will endure like that film has but, for the time being, I'm comfortable in saying it's one of the director's best films.[Grade: A]

When I start this Director Report Card, there was no new Quentin Tarantino movie on the horizon. "Kill Bill Vol. 3" had been officially abandoned. The director had mentioned wanting to do something called "Killer Crow," a project that looked to mash together "Django's" inflammatory racial content with "Inglourious Basterds'" World War II setting. However, I sort of suspect that to become another one of those projects Quentin talks about but never makes, like "Double V Vega" or that Mandarin kung-fu movie.

Instead, just a few weeks ago, news broke on "The Hateful Eight." It was to be a proper western, as opposed to "Django's" 'southern,' and was presumed to be a take on "men on a mission" flicks like "The Magnificent Seven." Just as quickly as that project was announced, it fell apart amid personal betrayal and much shouting. Whether the director is overreacting to a script leak is a topic of debate. Either way, it sounds like he'll be back to work on something again soon. Maybe he'll make that giallo I remember him mentioning in a "Fangoria" interview years ago. Whatever winds up being next, I'm looking forward to it. I've really enjoyed revisiting Tarantino's films, confirming him as still one of my favorite working directors.

I also enjoyed wrapping up a Director Report Card within a month for once. First time that's happened in a while. Anyway, next time we see each other, I'll be talking about the Oscars again. Hoo-ray.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Director Report Card: Quentin Tarantino (2009)

8. Inglourious Basterds

“Inglourious Basterds” is a movie Tarantino has talked about making for years now. For years, it was his mysterious World War II epic, named after the more grammatically correct spaghetti combat flick “The Inglorious Bastards.” It was a script he tinkered around with for over a decade and, at one point, was suppose to star Adam Sandler and Arnold Schwarzenegger. At another point, it was going to be a television mini-series. For a long time, I was fairly certain it was never going to actually get made. When Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” finally made it to theaters in 2009, it was preceded by years of hype. How could any movie live up to such anticipation? Apparently it did, as it wound up being the director’s highest grossing film at the time, garnering the most Academy Award nominations of any of his films, and receiving a heaping helping of critical praise.

This is doubly surprising when you consider that “Inglourious Basterds” is a film engineered to play with expectations. The titular squad of bad-ass Nazi killers, plastered all over the trailers and movie posters, are not actually the main characters. They only appear in maybe half of the film. The actual protagonist of “Inglourious Basterds” is Shosanna Dreyfus, the Jewish girl who previously escaped Hans Landa, the notorious Nazi Jew Hunter. The two plots, the Basterds’ campaign of terror against the Germans and Shosanna’s own quest of revenge, exist separately for most of the run time. Even by film’s end, the two never meet. Their stories play out parallel to each other without ever intertwining. Once again, Tarantino is violating one of the first rules of screenwriting with subplots that never meet. However, unlike the split screenplay of “Death Proof,” “Inglourious Basterds” playing with convention works far better.

The film is deliberately paced, balancing impressive moments of suspense before paying them off expertly. The opening sequence, where Landa investigates the farm house, plays out fantastically. The German officer is nothing but civil, charming even. The scene operates on Hitchcock’s First Rule of Suspense: The Bomb Under the Table. The audience knows Shosanna and her family are hiding under the floorboards, even before the director reveals it. The suspense comes from whether Hans Landa knows that and, more importantly, what his reaction will be. Of course, he does know, the character revealing that information as graciously as anything else. Powered by the nervous synth tingle of Charles Bernstein’s score for “The Entity,” the scene builds to a deeply suspenseful climax. Finally, the scene dissolves like ephemeral smoke, Landa laughing into the air. “Inglourious Basterds” impresses right out of the gate.

And it’s a good thing too, since the middle section drags quite a bit. The scenes introducing the Basterds work fairly well. Aldo Raine’s motive establishing monologue worked fantastically in the film’s trailers and works even better in the film. Til Schweiger’s Hugo Stiglitz, with his Samuel L. Jackson provided introduction monologue, certainly makes an impression. Showing Hitler’s reaction to the Basterd’s violence before we see the violence itself is another smart element, mentally stuffing up the characters. After that impressive moment, “Inglourious Basterds” hits a series of bumps. The long scenes of Shosanna meeting Zoller or Michael Fassbender’s Lieutenant Hicox drag. They aren’t without bright moments. Shosanna meeting Landa again for the first time in four years generates some minor suspense. The unexpected appearance of Winston Churchill is a humorous surprise in the latter. Both moments are powered by Tarantino’s trademark dialogue. However, reading Tarantino’s dialogue as subtitles instead of hearing them robs the words of their musical quality. The scene with Hicox and Michael Myers’ General Fenech is loaded down with exposition and plot mechanics. None of those scenes are bad but they lack a certain energy.

The middle act cumulates in a Mexican stand-off in a basement bar. Tarantino usually reverses his Mexican Stand-Offs for the climax. Dropping that sequence in the middle of the movie is somewhat problematic. First off, the build-up is tortuously long. Characters talk endlessly. Attempts by the Basterds to talk with their spy is repeatedly interrupted, first by a drunk soldier on leave and then by a nosy SS officer. The scene winds up coming off as more annoying then suspenseful. When guns are finally drawn and the characters stop talking bullshit, the stand-off picks up speed. The sudden explosion of violence is unexpected, as it cleaves through a large portion of the cast.

That story move is representative of one of the film’s major problems and also, unexpectedly, one of its strength. Spending time developing Lieutenant Hicox and Hugo Stiglitz just to kill them off a few scenes later is frustrating. Why did we invest in these cast members if they weren’t important? From a fan’s perspective, this is frustrating. The coldly, if reasonably, psychotic Stiglitz is fascinating, especially when paired with Til Schweiger’s intense, stare-eyed performance. Michael Fassbender, with his ironic mastery of accents, cuts an impressive figure, like a modern day Errol Flynn. His delivery makes some of the heavier dialogue easy to listen too. So what was Tarantino's purpose in clipping them so soon? Perhaps he was making a point about the wages of war, how any one can die at any minute. Maybe.

Or, maybe, he just cut down a huge story to an only big story. After the self-indulgence of “Death Proof,” “Inglourious Basterds” is one of Tarantino’s most disciplined screenplays. Like most of the director’s work, the film is presented in novel-style chapters. Oddly, there are only six chapters. That doesn’t seem like very much. This is a sprawling story with dozens of characters. There are at least ten Basterds to start with. We only spend time with only four or five of them. Shosanna’s story only details some of her history. We know very little about her relationship with Marcel. Zoller’s plot line could have easily been expanded. It’s easy to see how much was condensed, removed, cut, or whittled down. “Inglourious Basterds” is a pretty good two-and-a-half hour movie that would have been an amazing five hundred page novel, ten hour mini-series, or seventy-volume comic book. Though frustrating on first viewing, this is less of a problem on repeat watches. This isn’t the whole story, nearly a small portion of it. Tarantino is adapt at creating sprawling worlds and this is one of his most involved.

“Inglourious Basterds” is plagued with that stop-and-go pacing until somewhere near the film’s hour point. All plot lines come together during an exhilarating montage set to David Bowie’s “Cat People” theme. A song originally about repressed sexual desire suddenly becomes a ballad about Shosanna’s simmering rage, her revenge finally coming to a head. From there on, “Inglourious Basterds” is electrifying. Aldo and company’s attempt to fit in at the film première is hilarious. Hans tearing through their disguise with his polyglot skills is both hilarious while ramping up the stakes. The bullets, fire and explosion are perfectly executed, the chaos bringing way to silence. The resolution to Zoller and Shosanna’s storyline is shocking but weirdly cathartic, mostly thank to the inspired musical choice of Morricone's "Un Amico." Finally, the film’s final step builds fantastically on what we already know. Raine looking directly into the camera and declaring the film Tarantino’s masterpiece might be a bit presumptuous. But as far as final acts go, “Inglourious Basterds” has got one hell of one.

Another sign that this screenplay is the writer at his most efficient is its thematic element. “Inglourious Basterds” is a film lover’s proposal about film’s importance to history. It’s less a war movie then a war movie. The turning point of the war doesn’t take place on the battle field but in a movie theater. Film itself is position as a literal weapon, a pile of nitrate reels re-purposed as a bomb. The characters discuss movies and directors, mentioning “King Kong,” Emil Jennings, “Sergeant York,” and Leni Riefenstahl. The characters prominently feature an actress and a film critic. A huge portion of the plot revolves around a propaganda film. During the climax, Tarantino visualizes the film’s theme when Shosanna’s mad, cackling face is projected onto a plume of white smoke. Never before has the director so seamlessly merged his love of cinema with his script’s theme.

When released, a predictable wave of controversy greeted “Inglourious Basterds.” Critics questioned the taste of casting Jews as bloody avengers against the Nazis. If meeting genocide with further violence was a smart connection to make. On one level, you wonder if such a response was even on Quentin’s mind. Was he making a movie about World War II that wasn’t a “serious issues” movie but rather a simple exploitation flick? Yet then again, the wages of war and revenge are right there in the script’s DNA. The Basterds mow down Nazis, grim-faced and ruthless. The same way SS Officers mercilessly murdered Jews. Nobody in the film comes out clean. Innocent people die in Shosanna’s fire; soldiers who were just doing their jobs fall at the Basterds’ bullets and blades. The avengers are ultimately no better then the perpetrators. War is ugly business and nobody makes it out without innocent blood on their hands.

Despite its interesting construction and intriguing subtext, the most important thing to come out of “Inglourious Basterd” was Christoph Waltz. Never before has an actor been more suited to a director. Waltz’ ever-loquacious delivery is perfect for the director’s trademark double-stuffed dialogue. Waltz is never tripped up by the words, always delivering them in a razor sharp fashion. It helps that Tarantino wrote such a great character for him. Hans Landa is bound to go down in history as one of cinema’s great villains. Landa never betrays his sinister thoughts, hiding every action behind a smile and likable turn of phrase. He is so charming that, when he cooks up a complicated plot at the end, you half-way want to see it succeed. It’s no surprise that Waltz has quickly become Tarantino’s trademark actor as the two are perfectly suited to one another.

The rest of “Inglourious Basterds’” cast is more mixed. Melanie Laurent impresses as Shosanna, packing a lot of intensity under a glance or a word. Her fear and resentment is balanced on her face. Seeing her reap her revenge is truly satisfying. For a character like Bridget von Hammersmark, a charming, internationally beloved actress, you needed a charming actress. Diane Kruger is more then up to the task, lovely and likable, especially during the bullet extraction scene. Brad Pitt ultimately wins the audience over as Aldo Raine. However, his laughably bad Appalachian accent takes some getting used to. At the very least, Pitt adapts nicely to Tarantino’s style. Speaking of bad accent, Eli Roth’s Bahston accent is embarrassing. Roth is hardly a trained actor to begin with and he stretches his limited range to its breaking point. It would have been nice to see more of B.J. Novak or Omar Doom, as both are entertaining in their limited roles.

“Inglourious Basterds” marks a strong return of the director’s style. Some trademark crash-zooms and tracking shots appear during the “Putting Out the Fire” montage. The sudden appearance of Samuel L. Jackson as a narrator is a great addition and works especially well during Hugo Stigletz’ introductory flashback. I like the quick jumps around in time, like a flash back to a machine gunned Jeep. Tarantino even manages to justify his foot fetish, as a missing shoe is a plot-point. His soundtrack selection is typically excellent, Billy Preston’s “Slaughter” theme especially.

Hugely ambitious, somewhat uneven, but propulsive when it works, “Inglourious Basterds” is a distinctly Tarantino production. Some love it a lot, calling it the director’s best work. I wouldn’t go that far. However, the movie’s best moments are spectacular and unforgettable. [Grade: B+]

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Director Report Card: Quentin Tarantino (2007)

7. Grindhouse
Segment: "Death Proof"

“Grindhouse” was the movie nerd event film of 2007. Quentin Tarantino, the God of the Movie Nerds, got together with his filmmaker BBF Robert Rodriguez. (Who, if not a God of Movie Nerds, is at least a Movie Nerd Disciple.) Two guys who had spent their entire careers riffing on classic exploitation flicks got together to make a proper homage to the genre. Better yet, they were determined to recreate the experience of a 42nd Street double feature, with grainy film reels, vintage bumpers, and trailers before and between. The best part? You were getting two movies for the price of one. In a time when all movie theaters are the same, Tarantino and Rodriguez were determined to make a unique film-going experience.

That “Grindhouse” failed to connect with a mainstream audience really shouldn’t have surprised anyone. It was always a weird, niche product, even with big-time filmmakers like Tarantino and Rodriguez behind the camera. What was more surprising was the harsh reaction the film received from film nuts, especially “Death Proof,” Tarantino’s half. People called it self-indulgent and, worse yet, boring. Most notably, the director himself considers it his worse film. Some still loved it, myself included. I went as far as to call it my favorite film of the year. Would such a divisive film like “Death Proof” hold up, especially separate from the overall “Grindhouse” experience?

It’s definitely my least favorite Tarantino film. Which is to say there’s still things I like about it. However, “Death Proof,” at times, seems designed to defy expectations and test fanboys’ patience. After “Kill Bill,” I think a lot of casual fans got the impression that Tarantino is an action director. He’s not, not really. I mean, his movies have action in them, some times a lot of action. But the meat still is and has always been the dialogue. “Death Proof” has action in it but the ratio widely leans towards the dialogue. I doubt it was intentional but if it is that makes “Death Proof” Tarantino’s “Through Being Cool,” a dismissal towards the hanger-ons and posers.

“Death Proof” was suppose to be Tarantino’s first horror film, a combination of an eighties slasher flick and a seventies car movie. Not so much in actuality. The horror elements take up one major scene and a handful of minor others. What’s “Death Proof” actually about? Girl talk! The first hour or so is devoted to a batch of female characters yakking about unimportant shit. Then they all die. The film then introduces a new batch of women before committing to another half-hour of girl talk. It’s a problematic structure. Switching protagonists mid-way through a film throws the audience off, forcing us to realign after an hour. Tarantino was experimenting with this but it doesn’t work. The film’s biggest flaw is that it completely starts over in that fashion.

The film’s other biggest problem is that first batch of chicks aren’t very likable. Arlene, Shanna, and Jungle Julia are introduced complaining about weed. They start bitching about boys in petty, small ways. We spend the next hour with them and the characters never really drift out of that bitchy mode. The story gets very small, contained briefly within a Mexican restaurant but mostly within a noisy, crowded bar. The dialogue between the girls and the other bar patrons are meant to be charming. Arlene makes out with a random guy in a car. Shanna complains to some dude about how her name is pronounced. The three girls share shots with the bartender, played by Tarantino himself in his most mugging, self-aggravating mode. They come off like a group of mean girls. Unlike the director’s best characters, we wind up spending more time with them then we’d ever want too.

The script tries to give us peaks inside the girls’ minds. Julia gets sad about a guy who won’t text her back. Arlene has her doubts about lap-dancing. All of these humanizing bits come off as deeply superficial. The actresses are not charming enough to carry their ugly characters. Vanessa Ferlito’s Jersey accent is grating. The actress isn’t bad. You can easily see her doing better with different material. The depth just isn’t in the script. Sydney Poitier's best attribute is that she can easily navigate Tarantino’s arch dialogue. Some of the words and references are ridiculous, like an out-of-the-blue shout out to Zatochi or a repeated mantra concerning taste in men. Poitier’s tongue is quick enough to handle these words. They’re never realistic but at least they sound good. Jordan Ladd, who is talented, is given little to work with. Most of her performance comes from playing off of Eli Roth... Who is as obnoxious an actor as Tarantino is. The horny teen character doesn’t do the guy any favors.

What does work about the first half of “Death Proof?” Mostly Kurt Russell. You imagine Russell was on Tarantino’s list of actors he wanted to work with. Kurt spouts the director’s trademark dialogue with ease. A monologue about Stuntman Mike’s history as a stuntman is especially entertaining, Kurt making a list of old TV references sound natural. Stuntman Mike is, naturally, a despicable human being, a misogynistic serial killer and a total sleazeball. However, Kurt makes him likable. He winds up being more relaxed and humble then his female victims. Was this intentional, a possible comment on slasher conventions? Maybe. Kurt’s fourth-wall busting glance at the viewer certainly suggests it. But if so, why do we spend so much time with the girls? For the record, Rose McGowen’s Pam is more likable then her peers and McGowen, comatose in Rodriguez’ half, is likable and quick-witted here.

You know what else works about the first half? The fucking crash. Mike’s sinister intentions are hinted at, his car lurking in the shadows. When Pam’s face smashes into the dashboard, “Death Proof” starts to lumber to life. The crash is brilliantly orchestrated. Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich’s propulsive garage-rock classic “Hold Tight” powers the scene with its thrashing guitar beat. The flashing lights and shrieking sound effects add a layer of shock. The collision is shown four times, the effect on each girl focused on. The violence ramps up with each shock, a simple shattered neck elevating to a tire peeling out on a face. The scene climaxes with a car flipping repeatedly, real metal smashing against concrete. It’s amazing.

And then the movie starts over again. Which is frustrating. Tarantino is at least smart enough to make the second batch of ladies far more likable. Much of that has to do with the actresses involved. Zoe, Kim, Lee, and Abernathy talk about the same shit as the original girls did. They discuss guys, sex, work, and movies. The dialogue is on the same level, artificial but poetic in its own way. However, the cast is much more likable with a visible chemistry. The film is largely a vehicle for Zoe Bell, playing herself, proving to be immensely charming. Rosario Dawson’s infinite charisma takes Abernathy a far way and it helps that she’s the most down-to-earth of the girls. Flighty Lee adds some levity, provided mostly by Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s all-smiles appeal. Tracie Thoms’ Kim is the thorniest of the girl but still proves humorous. Are the long scenes of the girl sitting around a table talking still tedious? To a degree, yes. Are the “Vanishing Point” and other references too on the nose? Oh yeah. They certainly go on far too long. Still, the far more interesting cast helps makes the ride easier.

Finally, in the last third, “Death Proof” gets really good. The slasher premise is abandoned entirely, the film transiting into a car chase flick completed. The action proves bracing and exciting. Metal smashes on metal, the chrome twisting. The car weaves around traffic, innocent bystanders occasionally paying the price. The direction frequently puts us right in the action, careening around tight corners and through debris. The cars leaping off an inexplicable mound is a great stunt. When the Dodge Charger comes off that ramp, smashing into Mike’s car, flipping it… Man, that’s satisfying. Tarantino set up to pay homage to and top the carsploitation classics of the seventies and more then succeeded. From that perspective, the film is hugely successful.

Even then, there are issues. “Death Proof” is a revenge movie too. However, this time, the heroes are on the wrong side. The audience knows Stuntman Mike is a serial killer. Zoe, Kim, and Abernathy don’t know that. As far as they know, Mike was just some asshole who tried to run them off the road. Their reprisal seems somewhat disproportional. Had the girls just thrashed Mike, that probably would have been fine. But Abernathy collapsing his head with her boot? Too much. Should one of the girls been murdered? Should Mike and Jasper, the hick who probably rapes Lee, been combined into one character? Reason is sacrificed for a flimsy girl power message.

I mentioned that “Kill Bill” is considered the start of Quentin’s self-indulgent period. Maybe “Death Proof” is the actual marker of that change. The bar’s jukebox is filled with the kind of music that the director loves, sixties soul and classic garage rock. “It’s So Easy” from “Cruising” and “Chick Habit,” probably a reference to “But I’m a Cheerleader!,” are prominently featured. There are repeated, lascivious shots of the girl’s feet, legs, and asses. This is especially notable in the extended cut, which features a scene of Mike all-but licking Abernathy’s feet. Not to mention the excised lap-dance scene, which is all about Vanessa Ferlito’s ass. I mean, it’s a nice ass but the director is bordering creepy old man territory on that one. And what about the convenience store that stocks “Fangoria,” “Video Watchdog,” and has SOTA’s Johnny Cash figure on the counter? I don't think such a place exists. Stick with the “Grindhouse” cut if you can, a leaner version of a film that desperately needed more editing.

My biggest problem with “Death Proof” is that it flatly explains its own themes. In the connecting scene between the two stories, Sheriff Earl McGraw explains that, for Stuntman Mike, murder is sex. This is especially egregious since the pseudo-feminist themes are fairly apparent. Maybe the movie needed more shots of Mike sitting on his car hood, the duck hood ornament from “Convoy” nestled between his legs. That’s comparatively subtle. I also have a problem with text messaging being such a plot point. The movie keeps up the grindhouse aesthetic, with grainy film and weirdly looped audio. Yet the modern phones and references really takes me out of the setting.

I tear “Death Proof” down but, really, the film is enjoyable. When it works, it’s fantastic. The problem is there’s a lot of bullshit to wade through to get to those memorable moments. It is, without question, the director’s most inessential film. When combined with “Planet Terror,” it proves more manageable simply because the “Grindhouse” presentation works so well. Those fake trailers and bumpers help a lot. On its own, “Death Proof” is the first Tarantino movie that is skipable. [“Death Proof:” B-, “Grindhouse:” B+]

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Director Report Card: Quentin Tarantino (2004)

6. Kill Bill: Vol. 2

At first, many fans, myself included, were annoyed that “Kill Bill” was split into two halves. This was before the “Harry Potters,” “Twilights,” and “Hunger Games” of the world made such behavior all too common. Being forced to wait a year for the end of the story was ridiculous. It came off like Harvey Weinstein being his Scissorhanded self, clipping a film in half to double his profits and chances at Oscar gold. Of course, the decision was motivated by those things. However, in retrospect, the split worked in the film’s favor. A complete “Kill Bill” would run just over four hours. That’s fine for home video but would probably be asking too much of theater audiences.

Moreover, the two halves have wildly different tones. “Vol. 1” is big, bold, bloody and action-packed. “Vol. 2” is more reserved, conversationally paced, with a melancholy heart beating under it. Packed, clever dialogue is traded more frequently then fists. If volume one showed what the Bride was capable of, the second volume explores her motivations more fully. Packaging such different parts together might have led to some tonal whiplash on the audience’s behalf. Part two doesn’t start with a rowdy knife-fight. Instead, it begins with a slow-paced series of conversation, shot in soft black-and-white, concerning not samurai swords but wedding arrangements. 

Part two is different in another way. The first half of Tarantino’s epic kept Bill off-screen, the man represented by his swaying voice, discussed in hush tones by other characters. The second film has Bill present within its opening minutes.  The conversations between Thurman and Carradine shed light on the characters’ relationship and attitudes. The Bride and Bill loved each other, in a way. How couldn’t she, when Carradine makes Bill so effortlessly charming, a coolly mysterious man? The two actors mute their emotions but the attachment shines through anyway. The wedding chapel scene perfectly captures the hand-in-hand affection and resentment old lovers feel for each other. The chapter’s ending is expected but still comes of as shocking because of the emotions invested in the characters.

Bill had to be given a proper introduction. The film’s entire emotional resolution revolves around Beatrix and Bill’s relationship. We discover that the Bride suddenly abandoned her assassin life-style because she discovered she was pregnant. In turn, Bill’s violence and revenge was motivated by a wounded male ego. She left without telling him. Bill collects women, controlling them, feeling ownership over them. This information brings the film’s feminist subtext into sharper reflect. “Kill Bill” is all about an independent woman struggling against male entitlement. In this light, Beatrix’s alter-ego of the Bride becomes more then a Truffaut or Vicente Aranda references. The heroine is cast in the traditional role of bride and mother, to contrast against her defiantly nontraditional personality. She owns her womanhood in a battle against warped male egos. (This reading explains the Esteban Vihaio sequence which otherwise probably goes on too long.)

The mother part is especially important. “Vol. 1” ended with the revelation that the Bride’s daughter survived. She continues her Roaring Rampage of Revenge up until the moment she steps through Bill’s door and is confronted with her daughter. The expression on Uma’s face is heartbreaking, a thousand emotions washing over her. From here, the direction of “Kill Bill Vol. 2” shifts again. Bill isn’t a cookie-cutter bad guy, his motivations instead being all too human. He loves his daughter and is so warmly personable that you almost can’t believe he shot her mother in the head. Yet Bill owns up to his crime, even telling their daughter about it. The movie becomes a battle of parental rights. Both Bill and Beatrix were determined to raise their daughter a certain way. Their conflict was born out of this difference in opinion. Considering Tarantino was raised by a single mother, you can’t help but read into the film’s story decision. The final title card refers to the Bride as a lioness which is all too correct. Her power is tied directly to her feminity and her rights as a mother.

While addressing such complex issues, “Kill Bill Vol. 2” still functions as a fantastically entertaining action film and thriller. The film features perhaps the greatest catfight ever put to celluloid. It’s the film’s sole major action beat and one that makes a serious impression. Despite brief screen time together up to that point, there’s a fabulous rivalry between Beatrix Kiddo and Elle Driver. The two were rivals in combat and for Bill’s affection. Daryl Hannah gives a venomous, captivating performance. Her note pad inscribed monologue not only drips with malevolent intent but a wry sense of dark humor. Tarantino rather brilliantly sets this battle between two expert killers in a tiny, in-closed, shitty trailer. The two demolish the building, smashing through walls and over counters. Their combat is close and personal, smashing chairs, pulling hair, with cunt punts aplenty. Some of my favorite moments involve both actresses kicking each other down at the same time and creative uses of snuff-spit and TV antennas. The battle cumulates in a truly satisfying move, one that is unexpected at first and eagerly anticipated with repeat viewings. It’s a fabulously entertaining sequence and, considering the film’s climax is centered around dialogue, really stands out.

Though low on death-dealing action when compared to the first half, “Vol. 2” makes up in other ways. The first “Kill Bill” was mostly influenced by Japanese cinema. The second half shows more varied influences. Most notable is when the Bride is buried alive. The extreme-close ups on eyes and the stylized shots of nails hammered in the coffin lids recall the films of Lucio Fulci. The entire sequence, from its music to the shaky, dark camera work, all recall Italian horror. It’s a genuinely thrilling moment, invoking the audience’s claustrophobia while successfully playing up the Bride’s vulnerability. In that moment, it seems like her mission has failed. The live burial moves into the film’s second-most entertaining sequence. Pai Mei, a legendary Chinese character, proves massively entertaining. His dialogue, though cruel, is hugely quotable and memorable. Watching the Bride improve and prove herself is as satisfying as any other eighties training montage. Of course, with his focus on gritty detail, like bloody knuckles or the Bride striking a wall in her sleep, Tarantino dispels any clichés.

Despite its many fantastic attributes, “Kill Bill: Vol. 2” is not as consistently satisfying as its predecessor. Budd is not a problematic character. Michael Madsen plays him fantastically, making Tarantino’s thick dialogue sound like natural, redneck speak. Madsen’s mumbly delivery fits perfectly with the character’s personality. Budd is shaped as a tragic character. Despite being written as nothing but a white-trash loser, he comes the closest to finishing the Bride. More ironically, he’s the only one of Deadly Viper Assassination Squad Beatrix doesn’t finish off herself. So he’s a character worth spending time on. Having said that, did we really need to see so much of his shitty job? Did we need an extended scene of Budd getting chewed out by his boss or told to unclog the commode by a trashy stripper? Maybe it adds to the character, maybe it doesn’t. If “Kill Bill” had been one film instead of two, I suspect they would have been clipped either way. The scene in the chapel has some of the same problem, including a few too many unnecessary moments simply for the sake of local color.

The final act proves powerful, making up for any of the middle section’s small issues. Thurman and Carradine have such a natural chemistry together. I’m on record as a David Carradine fan here at Film Thoughts but few films gave him such an opportunity to show off his talent before. Bill fits the actor’s built-in charm so well while exposing him as a cool, thoughtful actor more then capable of delivering Tarantino’s dialogue. The film’s melancholy undercurrent comes to the surface near the end. As Uma Thurman walks to meet her fate, scored to the mournful tune of “About Her,” a deep sadness comes over the film. In most any other action epic, the story climaxing with a conversation instead of a sword fight would be disappointing. Because the audience is so invested in the characters, and because Tarantino’s dialogue has such a power to it, the viewer doesn’t feel cheated at all. “Kill Bill’s” emotional conclusion proves powerful and deeply satisfying. 

Given the more introspective tone, “Vol. 2” provides fewer opportunities for the director to indulge in stylish visuals. Save for a few. How about the tracking shot on Uma’s feet as she kicks Elle through the door way? It’s hilarious and imaginative, enough so that you can overlook Quentin’s creepy foot fetish. The director perfectly captures the sun-washed look of spaghetti westerns throughout when he isn’t capturing the washed-out color of Hong Kong kung-fu flicks. Aside from a few tracking shots and creative angles, the film’s visual presentation is more relaxed.

Taken as a whole, “Kill Bill” is an impressive accomplishment. The director has perfectly captured what he loves about drive-in cinema and combined them into one massive film experience. This is the kind of movie where kung-fu action scenes are set to music from a blaxploitation flick. It simultaneously invokes westerns, Asian action, Italian horror, Sam Peckinpah, and French New Wave. At the same time, it remains a weirdly personal film, invoking themes that are important to the director. Tarantino also manages to get career-best performances from Uma Thurman, David Carradine, and Daryl Hannah. Even if the second half is less seamlessly paced, it winds up being an intoxicating, massively engaging film experience.

Enough so that I’m sort of glad Tarantino doesn’t plan on making that third volume anymore. The Bride and B.B. have earned their peace. But you know what I do want to see? A prequel, those most maligned of cinematic installments. Where does Bill get all these girls? How did he come to know the Bride? Why was Beatrix such an adapted killer even before Pai Mei’s training? Am I the only one who would love to see the DiVAS working together, doing their thing, killing people? That would be awesome, right? A good sign of quality is when the audience doesn’t want to leave the movie’s world. Other people can stay in Hogwarts or MiddleEarth. I want to exist in the grindhouse afterglow, where beautiful women chop dudes apart with Hattori Hanzo swords, the sun always beats down on the desert like in a Sergio Leone flick and Isaac Hayes or Goblin are always playing on the jukebox. [Grade: A]

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Director Report Card: Quentin Tarantino (2003)

5. Kill Bill: Vol. 1

Quentin Tarantino’s first three features came in quick succession. Following “Jackie Brown,” the director took six years off. In retrospect, the long break isn’t surprising. The director was no doubt aware of the somewhat muted reaction that greeted “Jackie Brown.” I suspect he wanted to return to film making with something truly impressive, wanted to take his time developing an exciting new film. With “Kill Bill,” the director was trying something he had never attempted before. He was making an action film, the style of flick Vince or Jules would enjoy. Whether or not his particular style could adapt to such a genre was something the filmmaker’s fanboys, and perhaps the director himself, were eagerly anticipating.

Critics of Tarantino refer to “Kill Bill” as the start of the director’s self-indulgent period. There is some truth to this. The filmmaker has always built his films on the backs of others, drawing ideas and images from previous pictures both famous and obscure. “Kill Bill” shows the director’s love of references moving into overdrive, creating a patchwork made of smaller scenes from other movies. The premise, a woman seeking revenge, was inspired by “Lady Snowblood” and “The Bride Wore Black,” influences the film openly acknowledges. The Bride wears Bruce Lee’s yellow jumpsuit from “The Game of Death” while Daryl Hannah’s Elle Driver takes her inspiration from “Thriller: A Cruel Picture.” Chiaki Kuriyama plays a crotch-stabbing school girl in both this film and “Battle Royale.” The movie’s cast is sprinkled with genre stars like Sonny Chiba, David Carradine, and Michael Parks. “Vol. 1” and Tobe Hooper’s “Eaten Alive” both feature characters named Buck who are rearin’ to fuck. The film has no original score, the music instead taken from spaghetti westerns, Italian giallos, blaxploitation flicks, American drive-in cinema, and Japanese samurai and yakuza films. These same genres inform “Kill Bill” completely.

Is this thievery? I would say no. Tarantino imitates and references out of a sincere love of the source material. As a cinematic collage, “Kill Bill” is electrifying. It’s not a game of “spot the references,” but rather a way to imbue the movie with that anything-can-happen spirit that drove the best of seventies cinema. While the bits and pieces might be from countless sources, the soul of the movie is pure Tarantino. The director wants to share his love of cinema with us and his own movies are the vehicles for that love.

The director indulges his other loves too. The bullet-to-the-head opening establishes this as a story that moves even if that means getting ahead of the audience. The opening chapter actually takes place after the film’s main story is resolved. What is the purpose of the non-linear storytelling? Here, it is simply to drawl the audience in, to start with action before rolling out the story proper. The rest of the film is told in relatively straight-forward fashion, save an extensive flashback. Tarantino is mostly playing around with the timeline simply for the fun of it, establishing the film’s impish sense of humor.

The opening knife fight is a theme-establishing moment as well. Over his career, Tarantino has been accused of glorifying violence. The post-fight conversation between the Bride and Vernita swiftly, subtly establishes what the entire sage is about. “Kill Bill” is about having a good reason for violence. The Bride was screwed over, robbed of her daughter, and of years of her life. What Bill and the Vipers did to the Bride is a good example of violence without justification. What Budd says near the film’s end sums it up, “She deserves her revenge.” From a meta-approach, “Kill Bill” is Tarantino justifying his own use of violence in film. Yet the movie doesn’t wimp out, even with its massive stylization. The Bride murders Vernita in front of her daughter. Uma’s heroine flatly acknowledges that as a good reason for revenge as well, the film’s protagonist not getting out clean. “Kill Bill” isn’t merely a revenge saga, it’s a sage about revenge, about the politics and wages of violence.

It’s a good thing the violence has a reason. Because “Kill Bill” is the director’s most violent film. The violence is pushed to absurd heights, geysers of blood shooting from cleaved limbs. The exaggerated bloodshed, inspired by the theatrical arterial spray of Japanese samurai flicks, is first introduced during an animated sequence. This smartly gets the audience used to the film’s heightened reality. So when, later on, foundations of gore spurt from chest, arms, and necks, the audience accepts it. Compare the House of Blue Leaves brawl with the opening knife fight. One is close-up and personal, the combatants flinching with each blow, smashed with glass tables and shelves. The violence is brutally efficient. Not coincidentally, this moment also shows the Bride at her most morally ambiguous. Later on, when the blood starts spraying everywhere like crazy, we’re totally on the Bride’s side. Maybe it’s just Tarantino diversifying his heroine’s badass-itude. Or maybe the film’s action actually informs its moral standing.

For a filmmaker well known for scenes of people standing around and talking, “Kill Bill” moved the director into new territory. “Kill Bill” is a full-on action movie, opening with a brutal knife fight, detouring into a gory anime, before climaxing in a forty-minute long sword battle, the Bride tearing through sixty some henchmen in short order. The House of Blue Leaves battle is awesome, one of the most memorable action set pieces of our time. The action is complex and varied. One-on-one battles slowly ramp up. The battle between the Bride and Gogo is deftly orchestrated, the film’s hero being nicely tested. This sub-boss battle makes the chaos that follows more earned. The Bride doesn’t simply slice through the goons, Raizo Ichikawa-style. She leaps through the air, rolls around on the ground, runs up stair banisters, swings on bamboo posts, cuts through rice paper doors, hacks henchman in twain, tosses axes, and yanks an eyeball out. Every time an enemy is dispatched, that blast of blood follows. Eventually, the gore evolves into a running joke, adding to the film’s delirious tone. With a brawl this elaborate and purely entertaining, Quentin graduated successfully to action auteur.

The House of Blue Leaves set-piece is so fantastic that the following one-on-one duel between the Bride and O-ren sort of pales in comparison. This isn’t a super solider devastating an army of grossly outmatched mooks. This is two equals facing off. That’s fine and the duel plays very well on subsequent viewings. The sword fight is weighted down by the actress, the stakes clearly high. But the first time I saw “Vol. 1,” I remember being a little let down. Maybe the movie is too awesome too soon.

Tarantino’s evolution into an action filmmaker is tied in with his evolution as a stylist. Compared to his previous films, “Kill Bill” draws wanton attention to its direction. Rough crash-zooms punctuate scenes, visually establishing character connections. The use of split screen in a hospital seems excessive at first but rather brilliantly sets the tone, ascertaining Elle Driver as the Bride’s rival and Bill as a man with massive power over these women. The flight into Tokyo is high-lighted by a miniature of the city, right out of a Godzilla movie. The House of Blue Leaves is set up during a DePalma-style long-shot, brilliantly scored to the 5,6,7,8s. During the brawl, the film’s colors go out of control, switching to stylish black-and-white to silhouetted blue. The film’s resolution have a distinct desaturation to the color, mirroring the Bride’s exhaustion after the intense battle. Is some of it style-for-style’s sake? Probably. Does that make it any less awesome? Nope.

The movie’s most excessive stylistic exercise is obviously the anime segue. Animated by Production I.G., the company behind “Ghosts in the Shell” and “FLCL,” the sequence has a loose, sketchy quality to it. It’s not the big eyes, pointy chins, and wacky hair colors you might expect from the “anime” label. Weirdly, the animated sequence is one of the most bracingly violent moments in the film. The violence here is sadistic, villains inflicting cruel torture on innocents. Example: O-Ren’s dad smashing a dude skull. Or a mattress soaked through with blood. The animation allows Tarantino to take the film’s stylized violence even further, with a room painted with blood and a long-range head shot from the perspective of the bullet. Not leaving the cartoons out, Quentin also drops references to “Kite” and “Golgo 13” right around these parts. It’s cool but manages to justify its existence.

The effect the movie’s action has on the audience is directly tied in with its music. The use of “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” establish the melancholy soul at the film’s core. The screeching horns of the “Ironside” theme song perfectly shows how one character feels about another, evolving into one of the film’s best running gags. Bernard Herrmann’s whistled “Twisted Nerve” theme brilliantly powers its chosen scene. The “Lily Chou-Chou” soundtrack adds a dreamy quality to Hatorri Hanzo’s attic. The “Green Hornet” theme song is nicely utilized, ramping up the energy leading to the film’s big battle. A brief segment from Santa Esmeralda’s disco-calypso classic “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” adds a mythic, poetic quality to the Bride and O-ren’s confrontation. The film’s use of “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” has become iconic, widely used in car commercials and movie trailers. My favorite bit of music in the film is actually easy to miss. During the climatic battle, we briefly hear the pulsing, ramping synth of Charles Bernstein’s “White Lightening” score. Meanwhile, when the Bride employs her deadly break dancing moves, The Human Beinz’ “Nobody but Me” plays, a brilliant bit of musical stunt casting. It adds to the absurdity of the moment while providing a manic energy. Finally, Meiko Kaji’s mournful “The Flower of Carnage” takes us, wrapping the film up on an emotional level while explicitly acknowledging the “Lady Snowblood” connection.

Each Tarantino film flick seemed destined to relaunch a star’s career. “Kill Bill” wound up reviving Uma Thurman’s flailing career. Somewhat ironic given the director was largely responsible for making her popular in the first place. The Bride is a once-in-a-life-time character and Thurman plays it to the hilt. You wouldn’t expect her to be a believable action star. Somehow, her lithe form makes her acrobatic disposal of bad guys plausible. Uma has no problem getting down and gritty in the battles either, taking hits and getting spray with viscera. Thurman, when not swinging a samurai sword, brings an animal ferocity to the part. When screaming for her lost child or slamming a head in a door, you feel her intense emotional agony. Thurman sells the sometimes thick dialogue skillfully and with ease. Tarantino has called Uma his muse and he wrote a great character, perfectly matched with her skills. Sadly, I don’t foresee Thurman ever topping the Bride.

The supporting cast is rich too. My personal fave is probably Sonny Chiba’s small role. While we’re use to Chiba dismantling thugs with his bare hands, seeing him gravely intone serious dialogue is surprisingly effective. Lucy Liu is another actress who rarely gets her fare due. For proof of her excellence, check out the “Queen of the Crime Council” sequence. Liu skillfully mixes humor and raw emotion, conveying power and likability. O-ren Ishii might be a bad guy but she’s still awfully enjoyable. I would never consider Vivica A. Fox an underrated actress before this but she certainly makes Vernita Green a memorable character, as brief as her screen time is. David Carradine and Daryl Hannah would get more screen-time in volume two yet Carradine’s silky voice cast a long shadow, as does Hannah’s single scene appearance. And I can’t help but love Chiaki Kuriyama’s Gogo Yubari, a character that gleefully turns the Japanese school girl stereotype on its head. How she swings from giggly and light to coldly sadistic is a joy to watch. Kuriyama should have had a more international career following this.

“Kill Bill Volume 1” ends on a cliff-hanger. Unlike some modern multi-part blockbusters I could name, this doesn’t feel exploitative. Instead, the audience is left wanting more. Those final minute introduce enough of a hook to hold viewers over for another year. Though it’s been a decade, I still clearly remember seeing “Vol. 1” in the theater and having a blast. It holds up, remaining one of the ultimate Tarantino experiences. [Grade: A]

Friday, January 17, 2014

Director Report Card: Quentin Tarantino (1997)

4. Jackie Brown

“Pulp Fiction” defined a generation. Or, at least, a generation of filmmakers and film fans. Considering his previous film’s status, it isn’t surprising that “Jackie Brown” was met with disappointment. Oh, critics liked it and the movie more then made back its modest 12 million dollar budget. Yet, within Tarantino’s career, the film is frequently overlooked, gathering only a single Oscar nomination and not connecting with audiences. Maybe it was the marketing’s fault. The gun-shot-filled trailers suggested a fast-and-loose crime flick, an extended homage to seventies blaxploition cinema. The movie audiences got was instead a leisurely paced, perhaps overly long character study, mostly composed of people sitting around in rooms and talking. Viewers should have seen it coming and history has proven it to be the norm but a relatively quiet, dialogue-driven film probably seemed like something of a departure for the director at the time.

 “Jackie Brown” is a departure in a few ways. It is the first of Tarantino’s films to star a woman, to be about a woman. “Reservoir Dogs” featured zero female characters. “Pulp Fiction’s” female cast members were mostly confined to supporting roles. Her earliest scenes establish Jackie Brown as a woman who has lived her whole life under the thumb of various men: The gun dealer she smuggles money for, the ATF agents bossing her around, the judge who sentences her to prison. The plot concerns Jackie turning the tables on her male masters, manipulating them into freeing her, giving her the life she’s dreamed of. Unlike other Tarantino heroines, Jackie goes about her goals with only her cunning and intelligence. By shifting his focus to the other gender, the director created a strong feminist message of what a woman endures to survive in a man’s world.

It’s different from previous Tarantino films in another important way. “Jackie Brown” is, thus far, the only time the writer/director has adapted someone else’s work to the screen. The film is an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel “Rum Punch.” It’s unsurprising that Tarantino would be interested in Leonard’s work. The writer’s lean prose, naturalistic language, intricate plotting, and pulp settings were doubtlessly an influence on the filmmaker. The director is well-suited to the material, his trademark dialogue finding a fine home among Leonard’s tense plotting and memorable characters. The film is a direct adaptation; scenes coming straight from the page. The biggest difference, changing the title character’s age and race from young and white to middle-age and black, was made to suit Pam Grier to a part she was otherwise perfect for. I don’t expect the director to ever adapt literature again. And why should he, when so few authorial voices are as well-suited to his style as Elmore Leonard?

Quentin Tarantino was 35 when “Jackie Brown” was released, not quite middle-age himself. The film concerns aging as its primary theme. Jackie is old enough now that she no longer wants to live under other’s whims. Robert Forster’s Max Cherry says he isn’t concerned about getting older but his words can’t disguise his fears. He debates with himself over the run time whether or not its too late to start over, to change the direction of his life. The theme is perhaps most evident in Ordell and Louis’ storyline, two criminals who are over the hill now, uncertain if they have anymore jobs in them. Contrasted to the headier themes of “Pulp Fiction” and “Reservoir Dogs,” “Jackie Brown” shows the director’s concerns coming down to Earth. Getting older is a common theme but the director attached his own style to the idea.

I mentioned earlier that, despite being steeped in the style of blaxploitation flicks, “Jackie Brown” is a slow-paced study mostly concerned with dialogue and character interaction. This contributes a relaxed, conversational tone to the film that plays to the filmmaker’s strengths. Which scene of people sitting around and talking is my favorite? The first interaction between Jackie and Ordell proves to be one of the most memorable moment in the film. Steeped mostly in darkness, there’s a quiet tension. The audience knows what Ordell is capable of and we’re already invested in Jackie as a character. The scene plays out humorously, establishing the heroine’s strength. Other notable moments involve Jackie and Max’s conversations. A talk in her living room shows two actors quietly bouncing off each other, strongly conveying who each person is. A little discussion in a mall court shows their romantic chemistry stronger. “Jackie Brown” approaches romance from a mature perspective. Jackie and Max clearly show an interest in each other without any grand, melodramatic romantic gestures. While the film’s relaxed pacing occasionally causes the audience to feel the 154 minute run time, it makes a likable viewing experience. You feel like you’re hanging out with a group of familiar, chatty friends.

At least until the last act. After two laid-back hours, “Jackie Brown” gets a serious shot in the arm. Most of the film is free of the director’s trademark non-linear storytelling, as a straight-forward screenplay sets the pieces in place for the final portion. That final third tells the same scenario from three different perspectives. Each retelling builds on the situation as we know it. The tension and suspense is ramped up, each character showing an intense level of nerves and anxiety. While always lively, the film becomes truly exciting during that extended, triple sequence. The fallout that follows remains involving and satisfying. However, the movie never matches the tension it generates during the mall set-up.

By this point in his career, Tarantino had made a reputation for making faded stars relevant again. “Reservoir Dogs” brought Harvey Kietel back into the public eye in a big way while “Pulp Fiction” completely revived Jon Travolta’s career. With “Jackie Brown,” the director decided on a truly deserved career resurgence. Pam Grier had been a star in the seventies, becoming an icon of blaxploitation cinema with brassy turns in gritty flicks like “Coffy,” “Foxy Brown,” “Sheba, Baby,” “Friday Foster,” and countless others. With the end of that decade, Grier’s career practically ended. I guess the lily-white Regan-era couldn’t handle a girl as big, bad, and back as Pam Grier… Though she had carved out a decent living as a character actress, “Jackie Brown” was Grier’s first leading role in twenty years. She truly makes up for lost time. Pam is as fiery as ever, possessing a unique, truly watchable screen presence. Jackie is vulnerable without compromising her strength as a character. The final shot is a testament to Grier’s underrated strength as an actress, as she says so much with just a look. It’s a great performance. Disappointingly, Grier’s career fell into much the same rut it was in after “Jackie Brown,” the wonderful actress confined to small supporting roles in films frequently beneath her talent.

Robert Forster had been having a similar career slump. The star of scrappy indie classics like “Medium Cool,” “The Don is Dead” and “Alligator” had been relegated to stuff like “Scanner Cop II” and “Body Chemistry III.” Bails bondman Max Cherry easily plays to Forster’s strength, his relaxed sense of cool and down-to-earth charm. Forster’s best moment is a monologue about his career as a bondsman. He shrugs off the danger of the job without a hint of self-consciousness. It’s just what he does. The two leads have a realistic chemistry together, two people thrown together late in life. The final scene has the audience wondering where Max will go next, what his course of action will be. Like Grier, Forster sells a little with a lot. Forster’s post-Tarantino career has fared a little better, getting to work with notable filmmakers like Gus van Sant, David Lynch, Michel Gondry, and Alexander Payne. Even if it meant appearing in stuff like “Dragon Wars” and “Charlie Angels: Full Throttle.”

After a hit like “Pulp Fiction,” Tarantiono was probably allowed to pick his cast. Inviting Samuel L. Jackson back was a no-brainer. Ordell Robbie is the villain of the piece, coldly violent and quietly threatening. However, Ordell isn’t a 2-D bad guy. He has a sense of humor and more then hints at an inner insecurity. Though well within Jackson’s wheelhouse, it’s a good performance, showing Jackson’s strength as an actor. The biggest name in the film had to be Robert DeNiro. While well known for reaching-for-the-rafters intensity, DeNiro is amazingly low-key here. Louis is laconic, shrugging through most of his scenes. It’s a brilliant bit of casting-against-type, DeNiro bringing honest weariness to a tired character. As the situation becomes more intense in the last act, a nervous, sweaty rage boils out of Louis. His violence is squarely framed as the result of a frustrated male ego, feeding into the film’s feminist themes. The performance marks one of the last times DeNiro actually tried.

Tarantino’s direction is softly subtle. His most noticeable stylistic decision are slow, fade-out transitions between scenes. This carries the movie’s relaxed tone along, occasionally creating a sharp image, like a transition to a blood-red wall. A brief split-screen moment seems unnecessary at the time but reveals its purpose later on. Besides from that, the director’s presentation is mostly limited to slow pans and zooms.

The film’s soundtrack is hugely important, made up mostly of classic seventies R&B and soul. The Delfonics are actually something of a plot point. The film’s conversational tone is carried along by the soulful music. At its best, the images on-screen line up perfectly with the music on the soundtrack. Setting the opening credits to the theme from “Across 110th Street” isn’t just a reference to an older film. Instead, it informs the character’s struggle, setting up the story to come. My favorite moment is when Jackie and Max meet for the first time. Pam Grier walks towards Forster, and the viewer, in a long shot. Bloodstone’s dreamy “Natural High” plays on the soundtrack, illustrating the effect Jackie’s appearance has on the character and, by extension, the audience.

Aside from a television channel always showing classic grindhouse flicks, a Sid Haig cameo, and a few choice shots, “Jackie Brown” is relatively short on the pop culture allusions Tarantino is famous for. Instead, it’s a strangely personal film, showing the director at his most romantic and emotional. It’s not as flashy as his other films but still strangely seductive, causing me to return to it repeatedly over the years. Jackie Brown, the character and the film, is alluring and lovable. [Grade: B+]

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Oscar 2014: Nomination and Predictions

I’ve stopped trying to make predictions about what films the Academy will nominate. Mostly because I’m really bad at it. Sure, some things are easy to guess. Looking at 2013’s slate of films, and considering the Academy’s taste, anyone could have guessed “Gravity,” “12 Years a Slave,” and “American Hustle” leading the nominations. However, did anyone predict “Inside Llewyn Davis” being relegated to a sole nomination in the technical categories? That “Lee Daniel's The Butler” would be totally locked out? Best Actor snubs for Tom Hanks / “Captain Philips” and Robert Redford / “All is Lost?” That Meryl Streep would get nominated again? Okay, we probably saw that one coming.

My point is that the AMPAS are finicky in their taste. I am not well-read enough in the world of modern Hollywood political bullshit to perfectly guess their decisions. I’ll try. And fail. These days I don’t even bother to see most of the potentially award-worthy films until after the nominations are announced. Let the Academy decide what is worth seeing. My own taste will direct me to what I like. Oscar’s taste can do the same for them. The difference is my opinions don’t dictate what the best and brightest the cinema world had to offer in 2013 was. This is my heavy-handed and long-winded way of saying that the Academy is frequently wrong, nobody cares but movie nerds like me, and we reserve the right to bitch and obsess over it.

As with the last few years, I’ll run down the important categories, offering my misguided, doubtlessly incorrect opinions and predictions on films I haven’t seen. It’s fun, right? Well, I think it’s fun anyway.

A few years back, the Academy made the public statement that there would be anywhere between five and ten Best Picture nominations. For some reason, this has evened out to nine nominations for the last few years. The Academy settled on nine this year seemingly just to exclude “Inside Llewyn Davis,” a film they inexplicably hated, from the top race.

“12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” consistently top many critics' list and their inclusion here is no surprise at all. Despite its extreme content, downbeat tone, and indie-driven talent, “Slave” is exactly the kind of historical drama Oscar loves. “Gravity,” meanwhile, is a single-woman sci-fi thriller show, not the kind of thing the Academy usually goes for. It’s a testament to that film’s quality, critical praise, and massive box office success that it’s running nearly head-to-head with the socially relevant, performance-packed, historical drama.

Considering the Academy long-stated love of David O. Russell and Martin Scorsese, it’s also no surprise that “The Wolf of Wall Street” or “American Hustle” placed high in the race. I mean, after all, both films were tailor-made to get little gold statues. More surprising where some of the other Best Picture nominations. “Her” was beloved by many critics but might have proved too idiosyncratic (Translation: insightful and relevant) for the Academy’s taste. Even if the film failed to place in many other categories, at least Oscar had the decency to nominate it. “Nebraska,” similarly, might have been too low-key. Both are a pleasant addition to the race even if both have zero chance of actually winning.

What about the genuine surprises? “Captain Philips” was well-liked but hardly unanimously loved. Its nomination isn’t hugely unexpected but I wouldn’t have been surprised to see it phased out in favor of something else. “Dallas Buyer’s Club,” like-wise, was well-liked without being widely praised. Given the Academy’s love of mediocrity, maybe that helped the film, as it showed up in several other categories. The biggest surprise of the best picture race is “Philomena,” one of those British pics that appeal most to old ladies. Either there are a lot of old ladies in the Academy’s voting pool or the Weinsteins made a big, fat push for their chatty, likable elderly-chick-flick. Probably both. Either way, that was a title I really didn’t expect to see on the list Thursday morning.

Even with nine films nominated, the clear leaders are obvious. It’s coming down to “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave.” The space thriller might still win but the Academy is all about safe choices. And the historical drama is the safe choice. “12 Years a Slave” will take the gold.

The only surprises the leading man category yielded were who didn’t get nominated. Bruce Dern’s turn in “Nebraska” is exactly the kind of older-actor / late-career-resurgence that Oscar loves. By all accounts, it’s a good, personal performance. I’m rooting for him even if he’s unlikely to be the Academy’s top pick.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Leonardo DiCaprio’s nomination were very expected. DiCaprio has long been an Academy favorite and his turn in “Wolf” was soundly praised. Ejiofor, whose name is destined to be mispronounced repeatedly over the next six weeks, was an early contender for the statue. Sometimes Oscar rewards unknown names over recognized stars. This year looks to be a battle of that sort as these two lead the race, in my opinion.

At least until the Shirtless One wander in and took home a Golden Globe. Not that the Globes matter but they sometimes point you in Oscar’s direction. Matthew McConaughey, after a career of shitty movies, broke out last year with an amazing performance in “Killer Joe.” Oscar didn’t recognize him for that movie but “Dallas Buyers Club,” a gay movie that’s not too gay, seems more their taste. McConaughey’s Southern charm and possibly brave pick of material might be the mix necessary to win him an Oscar.

So it’s a tight race. But you know who’s most defiantly not going to win? Christian Bale randomly scooped up a nomination that probably should have gone to Oscar Isaac, Phoenix, Hanks, or Redford. By all accounts, Bale dialed back his notorious intensity in “American Hustle” which makes his nod even more surprising. Considering he already has an Oscar and it’s a performance nobody has been talking about, Batman won’t win. I mean, probably. You shouldn’t take my word for it.

My heart is rooting for Dern. My gut tells me this might finally be Leo’s year. While my brain says Chiwetel and the Artist Formally Known as the Shirtless One are the most likely winners. I honestly can’t make a clear prediction. 50/50 split between Ejiofor or McConaughey.

Nothing about the Best Actress Nominations is surprising or interesting. The Academy continues to shower Meryl Streep with nominations even though she’s the last person in the world who needs them. Will the AMPAS just say “Fuck it!” again this year and throw the Award Streep's way? It could always happen but I deeply, sincerely hope it doesn’t. Mostly because I don’t want to punch multiple holes in my wall.

You could say much the same about Judi Dench, another widely beloved actress who doesn’t have to do much to get nominated. “Philomena” seems to be considered a stronger role from her. Uninspired competition and the Academy’s obvious love of the film means she too might win on the “Fuck it!” factor.

Sandra Bullock is a spawn from a demon-gut-uterus and was also just an audience surrogate in “Gravity.” Granted, it was probably the best performance from an actress who has never tested herself on any level before. America’s Sweetheart, my ass. “Gravity” is certain to take home some awards on March 2nd but I don’t think Sandy will be packing any of them.

So the race really comes down to two names. Cate Blanchett previously won for her turn as Katherine Hepburn in “The Aviator” but that was in the Supporting Category so it might as well not matter. Working with Woody Allen has brought actresses the gold before and “Blue Jasmine” seems to be an intense, strong performance for her.

However, my money’s on the Oscar-less woman. And it’s for all the wrong reasons. Amy Adams has been nominated repeatedly over the years without winning. Her turn in “American Hustle” is, by most accounts, nothing special. Adams will win strictly because it’s her time. Oscar likes her, she’s never won, competition is weak this year, and Amy has the most hype. These are the factors that decide winners, not talent.

Amy Adams
for “American Hustle.”

Best Supporting Actor is one of the strongest categories this year. With one exception anyway. Why the fuck does Jonah Hill keep getting nominated? I mean, he’s not a bad guy. He seems personable enough and has given likable performances in past films. But why this fat pudgy guy? Shit, if Oscar wanted to recognize one of Seth Rogan’s friends, why not James Franco in “Spring Breakers?” That performance was at least memorable.

Michael Fassbender probably isn’t bad in “12 Years a Slave.” Yet I suspect his nod here is to make up for his snub last year, for “Shame,” his previous collaboration with director Steve McQueen. Will the “make-up” factor be enough to win him the statue? Probably not. I have no doubt Fassbender will win an Oscar eventually but I don’t think it’ll be this year.

I keep saying this. The winner will be one of two people this year. Barkhad Abdi might be the best thing about “Captain Philips” and already has a few awards to his credit. While the film was not as well received by Oscar as expected, that sort of thing doesn’t always matter when it comes to the Supporting category.

Abdi might still get it but Jared Leto in “Dallas Buyers Club” seems the likelier choice. He plays a trans-person dying of HIV. Gee whiz, that’s some serious Oscar-bait there. Leto too is riding a strong wave of buzz into the ceremony. His career full of uninspired and forgettable movies is the strongest detriment in his favor. But then again, that didn’t hurt Monique and even “Chapter 27” wasn’t as shitty as “Phat Girlz.” Leto seems the prime choice in this category.

Also, Bradley Cooper was nominated. Nobody gives a shit.

Jared Leto

I’ve probably made it clear that, in my opinion, awards are won mostly because of hype, not talent. Best Supporting Actress is a surprisingly hypeless category this year. Sally Hawkins and Lupita Nyong’o have never received nods before and their names weren’t mentioned much in the run-up to the announcements. I’m a fan of Hawkins from her turn in “Happy-Go-Lucky” and I wish her all the luck. However, her winning would be a major surprise.

June Squibb is a character actress who has kicked around for years. Her brassy performance in “Nebraska” might be the most Academy-friendly of this lot. In another year, I'd say she’s the strongest contender. However, she has next-to-zero buzz behind her, making a potential win also very surprising.

For that matter, the only nominee here with any hype is America’s New Sweetheart. No, not Julia Roberts. Jesus Christ, I hope she doesn’t win. No, I’m talking about Jennifer Lawrence. I was an early supporter of Lawrence because of her incredible performance in “Winter’s Bone.” She has, subsequently, disappoint me with middling turns in populist shit like “The Hunger Games” series. Her performance in “American Hustle” is Big with a Capital B and you know Oscar loves that shit. Does she deserve to win? Probably not but America and the Academy voters love her. Will Lawrence join Luise Rainer and Katherine Hepburn in the club of actress to take home wins two years in a row? My gut is telling me yes. (My gut is sometimes wrong.)

Jennifer Lawrence

The Academy fucking loves David O. Russell, more-so then is perhaps healthy. The guy has been on a nomination streak over his last three films. However, Russell is not Martin Scorsese, a universally beloved cinematic auteur. The Academy didn’t even start liking Russell until he ditched personal, weirdly independent projects in favor of things adapted and crowd-pleasing. He’ll win some year, probably for something big and historically significant. But not this year.

The same goes for Scorsese who is unlikely to win for something as rowdy and ballsy as “The Wolf of Wall Street.” The Academy likes Alexander Payne too but “Nebraska” isn’t the kind of movie that wins best director awards.

Here we go again. Two names are vying for Best Director. “12 Years a Slave” is the Best Picture front-runner and Best Picture usually wins Best Director. In any other year, I’d say McQueen has this one in the bag. But this year brought “Gravity,” an astounding technical achievement. The real star of “Gravity” wasn’t Sandra Bullock but instead Alfonso Cuaron’s incredible composition. I guess Oscar might still wimp out and decide they’re afraid of even a moderately sci-fi story at the last minute. But if their heads aren’t completely up their asses, Cuaron will win. And their heads might be completely up their asses.

Alfonso Cuaron

“Her” definitely deserves to win something and its best luck is in the writing categories. Sadly, Spike Jonze’s sweepingly romantic and mature movie is probably too heady for the Academy. Woody Allen just won a few years ago, and many times before, so I don’t think his Oscar is entirely plausible here. Bob Nelson’s screenplay for “Nebraska” might be the dark horse here, a suitably indie project unlikely to take home any other award. Nobody is betting on “Dallas Buyers Club” as its odds are much better in the acting categories.

Sadly, that’s not always how the Academy works. “American Hustle” winning Best Picture is unlikely and the voters are clearly in love with that movie. So they’ll probably throw Russell a bone for his co-written screenplay here.

As for the Adapted category… A lot of people really loved “Before Midnight” but I don’t see it winning. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is the most “adapted” of the works, in the sense that it’s based off a best-selling book. That hype might lead it to a win. “Philomena’s” sudden push might do the same, especially since it won't pick up other awards. But the movie with the most hype is “12 Years a Slave.” A Best Picture juggernaut sometimes winds up plowing through the writing categories too. This is what I predict will happen. Both writing awards will go to movies that really aren’t that conceptually interesting. As is the way.

I’m rooting for “Her” and “Before Midnight.” But “American Hustle” and “12 Years a Slave” will probably get it instead.

I liked “Gravity” too. Yet the love that has greeted its score baffles me. It’s not really a score in the traditional sense but rather a collection of tension-raising sound effects. If a good score’s purpose is to power the film, then perhaps it is a great score. If a good score is meant to be listenable isolated from its source movie, I’d say it isn’t.

A score that is listenable is William Butler and Andy Koyama’s music for “Her.” It’s a score as swooning and evocative as the film that surrounds it. Sadly, I don’t see it winning just because the Academy is lame. John Williams’ work on “The Book Thief” is more personal and understated then you’d expect. Though I haven’t seen the movie yet, I suspect Alexander Dusplat’s personality filled score reflects "Philomena" quite well. Thomas Newman’s score for “Saving Mr. Banks” is bouncy, likable, and very commercial. Weirdly, that last factor might wind up robbing it. Since the Academy really doesn’t understand good music, “Gravity’s” cacophony of noise will likely take it. Pretty much any other choice would be preferable.

The most unexpected nomination of the day was the title song from “Alone Yet Not Alone,” a film that was on exactly zero radars. It’s a tiny, faith-based historical drama that got a qualifying run somewhere in the country last year. No, I haven’t heard of it. I have heard the song which is pretty but unexceptional, the female singer thankfully not going too over the top with the vocals. I don’t know why it got nominated. (UPDATE: It got nominated because the writer called everyone up and told them to vote for it.)

The Moon Song” from “Her” is lovely, a rather perfect, low-key love song that I would gladly dance to at a wedding. Low-key isn’t the kind of thing that wins Best Song though. It’s also not a word you would use to describe “Ordinary Love,” U2’s typically bombastic contribution to the otherwise un-nominated “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” I don’t know why people keep falling for Bono’s whining vocals and overwrought lyrics.

The Academy passed over Pharrell Williams’ contributions to the first “Despicable Me” but did single out “Happy,” an upbeat number from the sequel. It’s a fun song with a chorus you can’t help but sing along too. It won’t win though because this is the season of “Frozen.” The stand-out number “Let It Go” has been tearing up the pop charts, not to mention spawning countless YouTube covers. The music in “Frozen” was overly goofy and disposable but “Let It Go” was clearly the strongest number, a powerful song bound to play at a few high school graduations. Disney knows that and has been pushing it like crazy these past two months. It’ll win. Hopefully Idina Menzel will perform at the ceremony instead of Demo Lovato.

Oscar continues to show little patience for Pixar’s sequels, save a “Toy Story 3” here and there. “Monsters University” was surprisingly snubbed, making room for a small film like “Ernest & Celestine” and “The Croods,” a film that very few people seem passionate about. “Despicable Me 2” made a lot of money but, seeing as how its obviously weaker then its predecessor, I don’t foresee a win. If “The Wind Rises” is indeed Miyazaki’s final film, the Academy might give it the award just based on that. Yet the film has proved divisive and somewhat difficult. Even if “Frozen” wasn’t as good as “Tangled” or “Wreck-It Ralph,” it’s overwhelming popularity and mass appeal looks to bringing it gold.

The Act of Killing” was a documentary beloved by many this year, even outranking some fictional films on a few list. It appears to be the top choice here, even if “Cutie and the Boxer” and “The Square” have dug up some solid buzz. Mutual snubs for “Blackfish” and “Leviathan” proves that the Academy doesn’t care about ocean people.

I’ll admit to being totally ignorant about the foreign film selection. “The Hunt” earned some okay hype earlier in the year, so I guess that’s might pick? At first, I was surprised “Blue is the Warmest Color,” the most buzz-about foreign film of the year, didn’t get nominated. In retrospect though, it isn’t shocking that France chose not to submit such a controversial film as their pick.

 I fully expect “Gravity” to tear through the technical categories. I would say Editing, the Sounds: Mixing and Editing, and Special Effects are in the bag. Maybe Cinematography too, even if a film widely shot on green screen probably shouldn’t be the winner in that category. (“Nebraska” is my other choice.) Production Design will probably go to “12 Years a Slave,” Costume Design too.

Finally, what the fuck, Oscar? Would it kill you to nominate some friggin’ genre movies in the Best Make-Up category? Oh, I’m sure “Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa” features some fine make-up effects. But, shit, wasn’t there some movie where people were turned into aliens or monsters or something? Jesus. Really? “Dallas Buyers Club” and “The Lone Ranger” were your picks for best Make-up of the year? Christ.


January has proven a surprisingly busy month, which is why updates have been a bit slow around here. My Quentin Tarantino Director Report Card will resume tomorrow and play out throughout the rest of the month. Two Bangers n’ Mash episodes should be coming within the next weeks as well.

But after that? Oscar season rolls out in earnest, kiddos. I’ve got a pile of movies I plan on watching in February. By the time of the actual award show on March 2nd, I will be much more informed about the films nominated. On that night, my annual Oscar Live-Blog will commence where I will drunkenly yell over Ellen DeGeneres’ good nature jokes and whatever technical gaffs and controversies spring up that night. Catch you on the flip-side, film fans.